Reading Assignment:

Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-12

Did you understand what you read?

  1. What is this quotation based on?
  2. Does God permit divorce in all cases?
  3. What is the intended length of a marriage?
  4. Did Moses command that men divorce?
  5. Why was divorce permitted under the Old Law?
  6. What is the only acceptable reason for divorce?


Jesus begins the next topic with a quotation from their traditions: "Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement." This statement is not found anywhere within the Old Testament. The nearest we can come to it is a passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Quoting from the New International Version (for easier understanding):

"If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, andhe writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and send her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled."

I underlined some of the words to show that this law is based on a series of events. This is not a law defining when or how to divorce a woman. This law's only concern is that if a divorce does happen and the woman remarries, then she may not return to her first husband at a later time.

Christians today are not the only ones confused by this law. The Pharisees at Jesus' time were split into two beliefs. One group believed that the uncleanness in Deuteronomy referred to fornication. The other group believed that the uncleanness referred to just about anything. In Matthew 19:3-12, the Pharisees came to Jesus in an attempt to trick him. They asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" Jesus' reply was "Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Oddly enough Jesus stops here. A man and woman are married for life, period. There is no mention of divorce. In fact, this answer implies that God does not approve of divorce. This is confirmed in Malacia 2:13-16. After all, how can God approve of something that results from sin?

The Pharisees must have thought that they had trapped Jesus in an error because they inquired "Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?" Jesus answered that Moses did not command divorcement (as we have already shown), but suffered its existence because of the stubbornness of the people. Jesus also pointed out that divorces were not allowed among God's people before this time. Jesus then makes a statement similar to the one found in Matthew 5:32, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery." The only allowable reason for divorce under the Mosaical Law was fornication (Jeremiah 3:8).

Many contend that in Matthew 19:9, Jesus had switched to discussing the New Law because he begins with the phrase "But I say to you." However, there is no reason to assume that such a switch was made. 1) The statement that Jesus made is in perfect harmony with the Old Law, 2) The question leading to the answer was concerning a commandment of Moses, and 3) The phrase is a conjunction - in fact, some translations render it "And I say to you."

The question comes up as to why God would tolerate divorce when Malachi 2:16 said he hates divorce. It must be remembered that the Mosaical Law was a civil as well as a moral law. Everyone agrees that polygamy is wrong, but the Mosaical Law regulated this practice (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Only the king was expressly forbidden to practice polygamy (Deuteronomy 17:17). However, just because a practice is mentioned or regulated, does not imply that God approved of it. People do commit sins and the results must be controlled. The thief must pay back seven times what he had stolen. The first son born to a man had the rights of the firstborn, no matter which wife was his mother. The remarried woman could not return to her previous husband.

Does God still suffer that divorces can be granted for fornication in the New Law? I believe the answer is yes because, in each of the other teachings that Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount, the answers can be justified by both Laws. It is interesting that the only other teaching on divorce in the New Law is I Corinthians 7:10-16. Here Paul told Christians that if needed, they could separate but they were not to marry someone else. You see, to divorce someone implies that a sin has taken place. Two faithful Christians should not be sinning and so should not permanently end their marriage. However, in the case of a Christian married to a non-Christian, the rules are different because the non-Christian will not feel obligated not to sin. A Christian should not automatically divorce a non-Christian. The hope is that the unbelieving partner may be won to Christ by observing the life of the Christian. However, the non-believer may decide to leave. In this case, the Christian is not obligated to force the non-believer to remain.

What about those who were previously divorced and remarried before becoming Christians? There is not specific teaching in the Scriptures on this topic, but I think we can infer from the Scriptures what God desires. First, let us look at the case of Herod and Herodias in Mark 6:16-20. John taught the baptism of repentance, but instead of encouraging Herod and Herodias to be baptized, John told them that they should not have been married!

Some believe that people in the world are not obligated to follow God's teaching since they are already condemned. Once they become a Christian, they then can start a new life from the point where they are at in their life. However, these people are missing a number of important points. First, marriage is not a church ordinance. Marriage was ordained by God at the creation. It exists outside both the Old and New Laws. Secondly, becoming a Christian means no longer committing sin (I Corinthians 6:9-11). Living with someone who was divorced for reasons other than fornication is called adultery by Jesus. Such practice must stop when one becomes a Christian. Finally, sin doesn't just exist for Christians (I Cor. 5:10-11). How a fornicator is treated may differ if we are dealing with a Christian or a non-Christian, but the fact remains that the person is still considered a fornicator. This implies that there is some law that they are obligated to obey, whether they are a Christian or not (Romans 4:15).


  1. Divorce is often taught as being acceptable. Many people have been involved in one or more divorces before they hear the gospel. What should be taught to such people so that they may repent of their sins?
  2. In discussions on divorce, one of the party is labeled the guilty party and the other the innocent party. Different rules are applied to the two as to whether they can remarry. Do the Scriptures support such a notion?
  3. Can two faithful Christians, married to each other, get a divorce?
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